Review: ‘The Leftovers’ – ‘B.J. and the A.C.’

A review of tonight's “The Leftovers” coming up just as soon as I stop copping you…

“But I think I'm supposed to be broken. Maybe we all are.” -Laurie (via Meg)

Before “The Leftovers” debuted, HBO sent four of the first five episodes out to critics. The only one missing was “B.J. and the A.C.,” which was delayed by the series' production hiatus and the need to reshoot parts of this episode. And because the episode's original director Lesli Linka Glatter had gone back to her regular gig on “Homeland,” Carl Franklin had to step in to finish things up, making this the rare TV episode with a shared director credit.

Now, any or all of the delay, the reshoots or the multiple directors (even if they're two of the best in the business) can be trouble signs, and I wondered if the end product was going to be a mess that HBO had kept hidden from critics as long as possible. But whatever decisions and alterations happened behind the scenes, the finished product is another strong episode of “The Leftovers” – not as intense as last week's (or, for that matter, next week's), but an effective holiday portrait of the shattered Garvey family.

Christmas can be a tough time even under far better circumstances than the four Garveys are enduring here, and even in a world less broken than the one depicted on this show. For Kevin, Laurie, Tommy and Jill, it's an almost impossible time, in which their faith is repeatedly tested, before they're all left with the things they care about most just barely out of their grasp, just like the cigarette lighter Laurie can't quite rescue from the sewer grate where she tosses it.

The closest thing the episode has to a main plot involves Kevin being assigned to find the stolen baby doll that had been playing Jesus in the town's Nativity scene. It's an assignment he doesn't much care for – and not just because he deduces almost instantly that Jill and her friends were the ones who stole it – but Mayor Lucy thinks he needs a public win. The problem is that no one in the town cares much more than he does (note the lukewarm applause when he announces the doll's recovery), other than Matt, who has a spare doll to swap in before Kevin can put the stolen one back in place.

There's a lot of substitution, and substitute parenting, going around. Tommy isn't the one who got Christine pregnant, but he has to be responsible for both her and the unborn baby during their lonely journey around the country. When Meg helps Laurie serve divorce papers to Kevin, we find out that Tommy isn't even Kevin's biological son, while a later encounter between Kevin and Nora Durst confirms what a flashback in the premiere suggested: he was cheating on Laurie when they were still together.

Jill's feeling completely adrift, which is part of why she steals the doll in the first place (though it's the sort of stunt kids pull in our world, too), yet she's ultimately not so lost that she goes through with the Viking funeral for the fake baby Jesus, just like her mother goes back to try to get the lighter, and like Tommy gets renewed belief in Holy Wayne because he gets a robo-call at the moment his faith was wavering the most. The Garveys don't seem able to find each other – not even when 2 or 3 of them are in the same house together – but there are still things they believe in and want to hold onto, even in the face of so many reasons to give up altogether.

While Kevin's searching for the doll, he's also trying to prevent the Remnant from crashing the town's holiday dance, not realizing that Patti is several steps ahead of him, so that while he and his cops are locking up her and some others on trumped-up trespassing charges, Laurie, Meg and other members of the Remnant are breaking into empty houses and stealing photos of the departed. In the age of digital photography, this is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else (Nora Durst surely has hundreds and hundreds of pictures of her husband and kids on her computer, in the cloud, etc.), but it's still a chilling sequence, and a reminder of what kind of people Laurie Garvey has thrown her lot in with. She may not be able to let go of her family entirely, may still watch the house when everyone is sleeping, but she's given her life over to Patti and this nihilistic cause, while her husband drinks and doubts his sanity, her daughter grieves the loss of a mother who lives just across town, and her son travels through parts unknown, avoiding cops, brawling with naked psychics and otherwise endangering himself for the sake of another man's child, just as Kevin once put himself out there for Tommy.

Christmas can be a great time for connecting with your family. Or it can be a depressing time to feel completely isolated. For the leftover, scattered members of the Garvey family, this was the latter kind of holiday. Based on the show “The Leftovers” has revealed itself to be over these first four installments, I don't expect future holidays to be much bubblier.

Some other thoughts:

* While we're largely getting a Mapleton-centric view of the post-Departure world, Tommy's travels give us glimpses of some of the other religions that have popped up (like the hippie-esque Barefoot People, who paint bullseyes on their foreheads so they won't be missed the next time) and also make clear that groups like the Remnant aren't a Mapleton-only phenomenon. I also thought it was a nice touch that one of the Remnant members at the bus stop with Tommy had a bandaged head wound; clearly, Mapleton isn't the only place where people throw rocks at them.

* More signs of the broken world: Kevin's car abruptly goes dead in mid-drive (forcing him to switch to using Michael Gaston's truck), and the recorded voice telling Kevin that Tommy's phone is disconnected just sounds annoyed, rather than faking empathy.

* Tommy's brawl with the half-naked man – and the “It's Not TV, It's HBO” half was the naked half – played almost like a very serious version of the nude brawl from “Borat.” But note again the air of the supernatural, as the guy accurately predicts that Christine will soon be surrounded by bodies wrapped in white – he just doesn't realize that they are the Real Doll-esque Loved Ones that loved ones of the Departed apparently buy to bury.

* That's Scott William Winters (aka brother and one-time “Oz” co-star of Dean “Mayhem” Winters) in the photo with the young Laurie, presumably as Tommy's biological father. There have been a few recognizable faces appearing in photographs (I'm pretty sure Nora Durst's husband is Sebastian Arcelus from “House of Cards”), and presumably there is a plan to use flesh and blood versions of these people in flashbacks, dreams, or in some other way.

* I may be at the point where I now see “Midnight Run” parallels everywhere, but Jill turning up in the background as Kevin is screaming and cursing at Laurie sure felt like Jack's daughter appearing in the middle of his fight with his ex-wife.

* Songs this week include “I'm Not the One” by The Black Keys as we see the Aforda dolls being made in the factory, “I Don't Want No Bloodstains” by Smokey Hogg as Kevin brings the doll back to the Nativity scene, “All These Lights” by The Grouch and Eligh as the twins get pulled over by Kevin and Lin Greenwood's “I Must See Jesus for Myself” over the closing credits.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at